Sunday, July 11, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935): Hitchcock Breaks Through

“If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” ~ Alfred Hitchcock

This statement by Hitchcock sums up perfectly his attitude about directing the film that really made the public sit up and take notice of his talent, both in England and the United States. It is the inspiration for his creative, yet very straightforward direction of The 39 Steps (1935), a movie still revered today for its masterful style and pacing. It’s been remade more than once, but none have begun to touch the Hitchcock bravura.

As the film begins, in an English music hall, the mood is very raucous and lighthearted, and one wonders where the trademark Alfred Hitchcock suspense will enter in. That alone makes it exciting, because you know it will, just not where and how. But enter it does and with both a vengeance and the director’s panache. The featured act at the theater is a novelty called “Mr. Memory”, a fellow who is a walking encyclopedia and as he is spouting his wisdom to the jeering crowd a shot is heard, leading to mass hysteria. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is a Canadian visiting London, who gets caught up in the frantic hustle bustle to find an exit. In all the pandemonium, he meets a mysterious foreign lady who nervously persuades him to take her back to his lodging. Turns out Miss Mata Hari is a secret agent, being sought out by a couple of nasties who are scoping out Hannay’s building. Our hero Hannay thinks she’s not exactly on the up and up at first, but quickly sees which way the wind is blowing when the spy falls upon him in the night with a knife in her back. With a dead body in his place and knowledge passed on to him by the mysterious mademoiselle, he takes it on the lamb with both the police and foreign agents on his tail.

He goes from one scrape to another, and eventually meets up with a blonde maiden fair (Madeleine Carroll), who, thinking him the murdering monster he has been painted by the newspapers, holds only contempt for him, and when they become handcuffed by “the bad guys”, Hannay has a hard time, keeping one step away from capture while trying to keep the wild beauty from surrendering him.

The success of Hitchcock’s previous release, his original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) allowed him more freedom in his next cinematic venture. The 39 Steps was based on a spy yarn from 1915 by Scotsman John Buchan, though the director made the story his own. For film buffs and historians, the picture marks the first of a few oft used Hitchcockian themes, the most relevant being that of the “innocent man on the run” which was duplicated again in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959), among others. Another is his casting of Madeleine Carroll, a beautiful and cool blonde leading lady, and a precursor to icy fair hairs Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren in several of his 50’s and 60’s films. Carroll’s character, Pamela, wasn’t actually in the original novel and both the character and the potential romantic element she brings to the story were successfully added by the formidable director.

The film offers Hitch a chance to display his mastery of his craft, as well as the creative use of the camera. He claimed that with The 39 Steps, he wanted each scene to be like a short film unto itself and indeed he achieved quite the effect to culminate the whole as a quick and smoothly paced film. Upon finding the body of the initial female spy in Hannay’s flat, an elderly charwoman screams in close-up, her scream not from her own vocal chords, but the sound of a train whistle which is segued into the next scene of a railway. It is a three second spot, but very chilling and effective.

A well known episode from the film is that of Hannay making his way to a remote farm while on the run and asking the farmer to put him up for the night. The farmer, a strict and extremely pious old coot has a much younger wife, who finds the handsome and urbane Hannay attractive, and helps him escape when the police track him to the farm. This is yet another scene which was absent from the original book but developed for the screen. The vignette, although pertinent to the rest of the movie, is a short story in itself.

Carroll’s casting as Pamela is perfectly complemented by Robert Donat’s Hannay. The actor had just hit it big the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo and had become fondly known as “the Monte Cristo man”. The 39 Steps added to his growing repertoire of quality films, and led him to MGM in the States to make The Citadel (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), the latter for which he won an Academy Award. The suave Brit exudes just the right amount of energy, humor and intelligence to make him a very worthy Hitchcockian hero. With fine support by Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle and Peggy Ashcroft, the film is superbly cast.

Atmospheric, humorous and exciting, The 39 Steps is definitely a must-see. There is a lot to transpire in the movies 86 minutes, with suspense and fun aplenty, which is the least to be expected from an Alfred Hitchcock feature. Oh, and if you get a chance to view this classic, see if you can spy the director in his trademark cameo….cheers!

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
The 39 Steps (1935) Criterion Collection
Hitchcock By Truffaut. The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock By Francois Truffaut
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  1. I think the original The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps were where Hitchcock really came into his own. Oh, he had directed The Lodger, which displayed the classic Hitchcock touch, but it is with these two films that we start see Hitchcock making movies that are recognisably, well, Hitchcock. They are definitely two of his best, and they are my two favourite of his spy thrillers, surpassed only by North by Northwest.

  2. Well done, Rupert. Hitchcock loved the "wrongly accused" individual story, and no one did it better. While his films from the 1950s were more polished, the ones from Britain are in a way more fun to watch, as they're his breakout films where we first got to see him. His 'rookie' films, so to speak.

  3. excellent post. really need to watch this again sometime soon. for some reason i always picture donat in his mr. chips get-up and it's hard for me to see him being chased over hill and dale, even though i know he does so very successfully!

  4. Another excellent post, Rupert. This is the first Hitchcock film I ever saw, years and years ago when I was a kid, and still remains one of my favorites. Kudos!

  5. Great post Rupert!! One of my favorite hitchcock movies. I adore Donat in this role.

  6. Rupert you keep picking gems that represent high watermarks in the history of film regardless of whether they are 'famous' or not. This one is famous and fantastic. A film that draws you in and won't let you go. Donat is terrific and so different than he is in Mr. Chips. Thanks for including this one. I do hope that you include more 20th century Fox films in future reviews however. The older Fox films aren't shown hardly at all on TCM so few people know about them anymore. Also do you plan to review any silents?


  7. I am a big fan of Mr. Hitch but I've never seen this movie!!! I MUST see it soon =)

    Great blog, I'll be around! =)

  8. I like use viagra, but this no good in my life, so viagra no good.



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